Trusting another person can be terrifying, but it is a foundational component for healthy relationships. Are you pushing others away because of your fear of trust?
Trust is not a character trait that you either have or don’t have, and for some executing it is tumultuous. There was a period in my life where I was oblivious to how my inability to trust was affecting my current and prospective relationships. I chronically felt misunderstood and alone. Relationships felt surface, close enough to not feel isolated, but distant enough to never feel fully seen, even by people I considered my closest relationships. This fueled anger towards people, I didn’t think they cared enough to get to know me, which gave rise to a severe case of “IDGAFs”. A sincere question from others, “How are you” was the hardest question to answer, and not because I didn’t have the words. There would be moments of seething inner turmoil, that I desperately wanted to find relief from by talking to someone. It all would sit on tip of my tongue, every feeling, every struggle, I could be crying, and still, that questions would come up “How you doing?” and a measly reply of “I’m fine” would plop out my mouth. Simultaneously, I’d be heartbroken and relieved, very confusing. I now realize the expression of emotion is one of several aspects of trust that challenges our faith in others. I was terrified to be vulnerable, I spent my life protecting myself from exposure and pain, I was terrified to put all that hard work at risk by letting someone in.
Do You Like Uncertainty?
How does the word uncertainty settle into your body and mind? If that word stirred up some stress, we have something in common! When we enact trust we are voluntarily entering uncertainty. We rely on the people in our life to do, as they say, have the abilities they claim, validate our feelings, and not deliberately harm us. We enact a level of trust in everyday life. If a person has their blinker on, you trust that they will turn the car in that direction. You trust the bus driver to get your child to school safely. You trust that the waiter will not spit in your food. Those may come easier than the level of trust I was previously referring to, but why?
Maybe you’ve reached your maximum capacity for trust and your reading this because your relationship are still suffering or true connections are few and far between. Whatever it may be, trusting is complicated, but crucial for quality, lasting relationships. As human beings, we are wired to control and make what is uncertain, certain. That proves tricky when we cannot control others or ever be 100% certain they will behave in a desired way.
Trust is Complex
Not only because it involves a willingness to give up control of others, but mutually involves confidence in the self. Trusting others is a declaration of faith in ourselves to make accurate judgments and sound decisions. So what’s the origin of this omnipresent fear of trust? Why do the tribulations of trust feel like more than fear of uncertainty? The First stage in Erikson’s Theory Of Psychosocial Development (Trust vs Mistrust), describes trust as
" the cornerstone of a healthy personality.”
As an infant, a positive message of trust is highly dependent on the quality and consistency of caregiving. If a caregiver is responsive, consistent, and attuned, the fundamental impression of other's trustworthiness, sense of self, and significance are imprinted on the infant. On the other hand, an abusive or irregular response discourages the growth of self and paints a picture of a world full of treachery, and instability.
When it comes to the development of mammals, humans are highly vulnerable compared to other mammals, due to our extended period of dependency on our “mothers” to meet our survival needs. Think about, its not until around 8 years old that a child may have enough autonomy to survive independently. Compare that to a chimpanzee, whom just after a few years is completely self-sufficient, a foal (baby horse) could be as little as six months! This speaks to the seriousness of an infant's dependence on the intrinsic faith that their caregiver will keep them safe, feed them, clean them and teach them.
That is the primary function of our biological attachment system “keep the caregiver close” for survival. A continuingly crying infant is reliant on deep-seated belief that someone will come to soothe them and when that doesn’t occur they are left feeling terrified and helpless. Apart from providing food, an attuned caregiver is a nervous system regulator. Infants are ill-equipped to regulate their emotional states. So a touch, a gaze, a cradle, from a caregiver activates the parasympathetic nervous system, allowing the infant to calm down. So the later life confidence to meet stressful experiences and confidently cope is introduced in these initial years of life. Early caregiving relationships formulate the core belief, of the basic trustworthiness of others, self, and world. These perceptions accompany an individual throughout their life.
Trauma and how its getting in the way of trusting…
Throughout life, experiences can happen that will test our foundational belief of whether we can trust others or not. I’m sure a quick self-reflection on your childhood can probably reveal if you adopted a negative or positive trust belief. So how does our foundational trust belief interplay in your relationships? Well, let’s say your prior reflection evidenced a positive caregiver relationship. That may imply that you’ve carried a general sense of trust and safety throughout your life. This does not mean you see the world through rose-colored glasses, but that you generally feel safe in it; you trust others to act morally and if they don’t, it’s simply unfortunate not an implication of every person. You also are more prone to trust your ability to protect yourself, as well as make accurate judgments and decisions. A bad decision or a misjudged person does not diminish your self-confidence. Tragically, one day you are mugged and your world goes topsy-turvy. Now your skeptical, looking over your shoulder constantly, distant and warry of others, longing for connection, yet feeling completely threatened by it. Now you find yourself retreating from relationships and questioning other's sincerity and yourself. What happened? Your positive outlook has been undermined, the trustworthiness is the square peg and the betrayal of being mugged is the round hole.
This inescapable dilemma is an unwanted state which kickoffs a rearranging process in the brain and body to make sense of the experience. Assimilation is a cognitive process in which we alter the facts about an event or ourselves to make it logical. These alterations commonly manifest as the “Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda’s”, such as “If I would have been paying attention this wouldn’t have happened”, “It’s my fault I should have seen it coming” giving way to crippling self-doubt, anxiety and a sense of self-betrayal “How could I let this happen”! In another cognitive process known as over-accommodation, we change our belief(s) to fit with the experience. A world once full of hope and safety is now dangerous “no one can be trusted”. As a result, Your trust in yourself and others has now been disrupted.
Now if your prior reflection evidenced a negative caregiving experience, a traumatic experience, such as being mugged, serves to reinforce the preexisting belief(s). Assimilating to the event; “I knew I had bad judgment” and over accommodating “ The world is too dangerous”, “ What happened really does tell me, no one can be trusted”. You could imagine how a pervasive distrust of others and the world can impact life;
- Difficulty with Intimacy
- Difficulty Opening Up About Your Feelings
- Overly Self-Reliant
- Difficulty Asking for Help
- Difficulty Making Decisions
- Hyper-Vigilance (excessively aware of surroundings)
- Problem Establishing and Maintaining Relationships
- Fear of Betrayal
- Anger Toward Betrayer
- Expectation of Continual Disappointment
- Fear of Close Relationships
It's an extraordinary adaptation to a threatening experience. It is the primary factor that differentiates us from other mammals, our higher developed prefrontal cortex that allows the ability to be self-aware (metacognition), use judgment, reason, and make decisions. Cognitive restructuring is one way we regulate the intense emotions that accompany the aftermath of a threatening experience(s). Certain stimuli associated with the trauma are encoded in the body, for future reference. Take for example, to keep a community alert and safe when an “at large” criminal is local, their picture is displayed around town with a caption like “ Dangerous, if seen do not engage and call local authorities!”. Similarly, the cologne the mugger was wearing, the pain that accompanied emotional expression throughout childhood, are treated like the fugitive, “pictures” are posted all over the brain and body as an alert “avoid at all cost, this caused extreme harm last time”.
Our system learns to protect itself from feeling anything that resembles the pain of the past. Repeated betrayals, rejections, invalidations experienced in early childhood, fortify the distrust for others, genuinely making trust a life-threatening endeavor. Like, previously stated trust is based on uncertainty. We prefer to live in the fantasy that we are the master of our universe, that in which we can control everything and unfailingly keep ourselves from harm. The sudden decision of a partner to leave, the friend who tells someone else your secrets, the parent that abused you, was/are not in your control.
Trust is profound and gradually grown. Different relationships involve different levels and forms of trust. You trust your colleagues to complete a project on time, but you wouldn’t divulge an intimate secret to them like you would your spouse. You may confide in a long-time friend about family or health problems, and only discuss work or minor occurrences with a new friend. As a person consistently sticks to their word, validates, and supports you, your confidence in them expands and you begin to feel safer being vulnerable with them.
First, it’s beneficial to develop your understanding of the origins of your distrust. Through that process, you can increase your awareness of distorted thoughts and beliefs contributing to your distrust in others. It helps to identify situations, people, mannerisms, that evoke these distortions. Secondly, identify dependable people in your life and practice enacting trust with them. It may help to build up to more intense acts of faith. Consider the ways you have been holding back in relationships. Use these factors to create a hierarchy, list ways you can act from trust, and rank them from least stressful to most stressful. Start with the least stressful working your way up. For example, asking for emotional support may be at the top of the hierarchy, asking for a simple favor, such as taking the trash out would be a less intense act of trust, but still moves you toward the ultimate goal of eliciting emotional support. Lastly, get clear on your boundaries and enforce them. If "what you will and will not put up" with is vague others may not be aware they are crossing a line. Boundaries allow others a guideline to act so trust can be built.
I work to not "leave you hanging"! I will be providing more information on techniques to help build trust. This information and exercises do not supplement professional mental health services.